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Jerusalem Journal: Neo-Nazis Come to Israel

Posted: September 26, 2007

Imagine you are the spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League in Israel. One morning you start getting calls from reporters asking for a reaction to the capture of a neo-Nazi cell in Petach Tikva near Tel Aviv.  Police said the gang of eight young immigrants from the former Soviet Union were alleged to have beaten up foreign workers, the homeless and Jews wearing kippas and to have desecrated the main synagogue with swastikas.

What can you say? It’s horrible? It’s outrageous? What words could possibly convey the disgust? The idea of neo-Nazis in the Jewish state is almost surreal.

The media couldn’t resist this story. It was something different, slightly bizarre and timely. Blaring headlines appeared for days and the story received wide, out-of-proportion international coverage.

Israelis found the report shocking, yet we at ADL Israel were not surprised. For some time, we have received reports of apparent anti-Semitic incidents in Israel and we have carefully documented each one. Usually, police would tell us that a lone swastika scrawled on the wall of a synagogue or public building was the act of a troubled youth seeking attention. We were assured that no outward racism or anti-Semitic ideology was involved.

Last autumn, following the terrible desecration of Petach Tikva’s main synagogue, we took a closer look. We met with immigration officials, police, educators and members of the Knesset over the matter and came to the conclusion that these incidents did not constitute a phenomenon. There is no organized neo-Nazi movement in Israel. To even say there are “cells” is misleading, since it implies that an ideology had taken hold.

The arrested youths, all originating from the former Soviet Union, have tenuous links to Judaism.  They and their families came to Israel on the basis of the Law of Return, which allows not only Jews, but their children and grandchildren and their partners who may not be technically Jewish, to claim Israeli citizenship. (As we noted, if the real Nazis were around, they’d send them to the gas chambers with the rest of the Jews.)

Photographing themselves giving Hitler salutes and hating Jews, these few self-described neo-Nazis represent a failure of the absorption process and not a secret, political fringe group with any kind of working plan of action or orderly platform. These are disturbed and violent youth who adopted Nazi symbols and neo-Nazi thuggary behavior. Of course, the behavior can’t be dismissed. They must be punished and severely. Yet ADL publicly urged not to stereotype a whole community because of this incident.

Curiously, the events sparked a contagion effect. After the media detailed the deeds of this gang, Israel seemed to be “flooded” with copy cat vandalism. Swastikas were scrawled over synagogues in Haifa and Migdal Haemek in the north to Eilat and Dimona in the south. Police have said that there are more misfits still lurking. Israel is not immune. It has cults that worship Satan and now it has those who call themselves neo-Nazis.

Israel has strong laws against incitement to hatred and racism. The captured gang is to be charged with assault and faces double punishment if convicted they were motivated out of hate or racism.  But suddenly lawmakers realized that there are no laws barring the possession of Nazi material in Israel. And there is no law that specifically bans anti-Semitism or denigrating the Holocaust. Let’s face it. Who would have thought it necessary here in the Jewish state?

The questions arising from this story continue.  When some punk chooses to draw a swastika, or a Star of David with an “SS” written through it on the wall of a synagogue they are making a statement.  But can a Jew be anti-Semitic? Is it the act or the motive that determines if it is anti-Semitism? Until now, in Israel, it was always left to linger as a philosophical question. ADL has always maintained that anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism whoever the perpetrator and whatever the motivation and we know it when we see it. 

Despite the many external threats on the state - from the Palestinians, Syria and Iran – this event was particularly disturbing for many Israelis. Police have broken up this neo-Nazi gang and are heavily monitoring other groups. The neo-Nazis may turn out to be a one-time occurrence. But no matter how marginal and embarrassing it may have been it has left us Israelis with a bad taste in our mouths.

* By Arieh O’Sullivan, ADL’s Director of Communications in Jerusalem.

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